Criticism of ‘superficial’ Netflix film: ‘This is how Hollywood sees the Arab world’

The film is about two Syrian sisters – Yusra and Sara Mardini – who are trained as professional swimmers in Damascus by their father. After their swimming pool is bombed in 2015 in the armed conflict between President Assad and revolutionary protesters, the two sisters decide to flee to Germany to seek asylum. That is the beginning of a dangerous journey, through different countries and by sea.

Boat people

When the boat they use to cross the river almost sinks, the sisters must save all the refugees in the boat by swimming across. Yusra and Sara Mardini are real, and the movie is based on their true story. In the film they are played by the actresses Nathalie and Manal Issa, who are also sisters.

The audience seems enthusiastic: on IMDb, viewers give the film 7.4 stars, accompanied by praise such as ‘gripping’ and ‘eye opening‘. But on social media, Syrians themselves are sometimes downright negative. Several Syrian journalists and writers regret that the film does not provide a political context about the armed conflict in the country. This, they say, makes it seem as if Syrians are only fighting among themselves instead of against a brutal regime.

The word ‘revolution’ does not appear in the film, which leads them to conclude that the film does not do justice to the truth. The film ends with all’s well that ends well for the Mardini sisters, while the conflict in Syria continues.

Influential media divided

Critics from influential media are divided on the film. The VPRO Guide does recommend the film, with four out of five stars: “A heavy theme, but the authentic chemistry between the sisters and the beautiful camera work alone make this true Netflix film worthwhile.”

The British newspaper The Guardian, on the other hand, gives the film only two stars out of five, because according to the reviewer it is more like a Disney sports film than a refugee drama. The film site Indiewire thinks that the script is not very original, and that the story is portrayed too much as a feel-good film.


Even one of the two protagonists has a hard time with the end result, which she says shows how little space Arab artists are given by white film producers to tell their own stories. “The Swimmers is not a film made by or for Syrians: it is a blown-up reflection of how Hollywood views the Arab world,” is the harsh conclusion of the Middle East Eye interview with the actress, Manal Issa, who plays the eldest sister. She confirms to RTL Nieuws that the quotes in the piece are her words.

The actress says she does not understand that she got the role as a French-Lebanese, and not a Syrian actress. So why did she take on the role herself? “I would have given up the role in an instant if there was also a Syrian candidate for the role,” she says in the interview. But there weren’t. Many of the other potential actresses came from Egypt or Maghreb countries, where they speak Arabic that differs more from Syriac Arabic than the dialect Issa speaks.

The suitable protagonist had to speak both Arabic and English. In the first part of the film, the sisters speak Arabic to each other – as Yusra and Sara do together in real life – but in the second part they speak English. Issa tried to add Arabic in more places in the script because she found it more natural and real. But according to her, that was not allowed by the producer. “I was outraged by the number of times I was told the dialogue sounded ‘cooler’ in English,” she tells Middle East Eye. “It was disrespectful and I felt insulted.”

Hollywood formula

The discussion about what kind of actors should play which roles is increasingly being held. “In the past, there were many American productions about minority groups that were written by white makers and featured white actors who painted their faces brown or black,” says Dan Hassler-Forest, film scientist at Utrecht University.

According to him, this has certainly changed, but it remains a persistent tendency for white actors to get certain roles. “Especially when it comes to Arab actors; that’s a group that has little presence in the Hollywood system, especially behind the camera.”

‘Envisioning middle-class white audiences’

But isn’t that exactly an actor’s job, to be free to play someone he’s not really? “There is a certain stretch, but especially when it comes to telling a story that is about oppression or about a marginalized group – such as refugees in this case – then it is very important to include that group in building of the story.”

This persistent tendency stems from the idea that Hollywood makers have about their audience. “They believe that the viewer wants to be able to recognize themselves in what they see, but too often makers have a white, middle-class audience in mind. All choices that producers then make are tailored to that viewer.”

According to Hassler-Forest, partly because of this, it often happens that films are in English while the characters in the story are actually not. “The mindset is that an international audience that is used to another language will be a barrier to viewers.”

For example, in the 1980s, Russian characters in films about the Cold War spoke English with a Russian accent.

‘Painful logic’

In the new Avatar movie, Na’vi (the language on the island of Pandora) changes to English after a few scenes. “It stems from Eurocentrism, the idea that everything that matters takes place in the West, and that that view is therefore also leading in how we experience the world. A painful logic, which used to be taken for granted in Hollywood that a film without white main characters would make less money.”

Representation is not only about the actors, but also about the creators. Because other makers deliver a different story than a story that is told by white makers to a white audience. “In that respect, the rise of streaming like on Netflix is ​​progress,” says Hassler-Forest. “The offer is much more diverse, and it has become easier for a global audience to watch more than just American sitcoms.”

In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, British-Egyptian director Sally el Hosaina says the casting process took more than a year, and that she did look for Syrian actresses. But she soon learned that it was difficult or even impossible for most candidates in terms of paperwork and asylum status to travel to the countries where the recordings took place. In the film, only the role of the mother is played by a Syrian actress.

The use of the English and Arabic language in the film was also a conscious choice, according to El Hosaina. At first the whole script was in English, but she wanted it different. That is why she transcribed the first part into Arabic. “And then as they continue their journey, they switch to English, which is very realistic for a bilingual experience,” the director says in a podcast.

Good intentions

In the interview, Manal Issa mainly blames Netflix and the producer of the film, and thinks that the director has done her best. Netflix has not answered questions that Middle East Eye and RTL News have sent by email.

So is this Netflix film just compelling entertainment, or does the viewer actually take home a message? “It’s important that the stories of refugees are told, and the creators probably had good intentions,” says Hassler-Forest. “But if it becomes too much of a story about someone learning to become Western, the viewer doesn’t learn anything about what it means to be Arab.”

25 years in prison threatens eldest sister

On January 10, the eldest sister from the film, Sara Mardini, will stand trial in Greece. Because the film is mainly about Yusra Mardini and her swimming career, it is only briefly mentioned at the end that Sara Mardini went back to Lesvos after her asylum application to help refugees. For that help she was arrested by the Greek government, and she can get 25 years in prison for people smuggling. Amnesty International calls the case – in which a Dutchman is also on trial – absurd: “Saving people is not a crime.”

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